Westernized subjects for a distinct Japanese style

Despite traveling to Paris, Showa Period painter Takanori Kinoshita picked up little influence

by C.B. Liddell

The history of modern Japanese art has a hierarchy of narratives. As in the West, at the top is the story of the avant-garde. This is a tale of trail-blazing artists taking trips to foreign locales, usually Paris, and bringing back radical foreign styles in their suitcases.

Another important storyline is the rejection of the influx of foreign styles by the establishment of the self-consciously Japanese art form called nihonga (Japanese-style painting). A third looks at the subtle way these two movements interacted with each other. Anything that falls outside these three main narratives, such as the work of the Yokohama-based artist, Takanori Kinoshita, now on display at the Yokohama Museum of Art, tends to be sidelined.

“You are the first newspaper to cover the exhibition,” says the show’s curator, Tomoh Kashiwagi, with a little surprise.

The reaction is understandable because Kinoshita’s style is unremarkable, some would say pedestrian. Born in 1894 to a wealthy family, he studied painting in Paris in the 1920s, where he managed to avoid the more avant-garde influences of the Ecole de Paris, such as Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism and Cubism. Instead he returned with a light, airy, rather slapdash realist style that was ideal for knocking off quick portraits of celebrities and socialites and churning out magazine covers (The exhibition presents a series of cover illustrations that Kinoshita did for the Shukan Asahi [Asahi Weekly] magazine between 1961 and 1962).

With a total of 188 works, the exhibition includes a few canvases by painters Kinoshita was associated with in his early days, including Yuzo Saeki, Katsuzo Satomi, and Zentaro Kojima, artists more open to the avant-garde styles of the day than the artistically unadventurous Kinoshita. But despite — or because of — his conservatism, there is something uncanny and surreal about Kinoshita’s paintings for a Western viewer.

Works like “Woman in Red Dress” (undated) and “Woman in a Room” (1954), which show affluent, Westernized, post-World War II Japanese women in elegant interiors, have a strange charisma that is hard to explain. What is unsettling is that apart from the subjects, there is almost no other trace of Japaneseness — no tatami mats, no kimonos, not even a single kanji scrawled on an alcove scroll or a magazine cover.

The interiors themselves are typical Western ones that could just as easily have been transposed from American magazines of the 1950s and ’60s, but as they are inhabited by Japanese ladies playing the role of postwar Western materialism to the hilt, they have a quaint, strained and soulless atmosphere. The subtle, frozen smile, the prim pose and blank gaze of “Woman in Red Dress,” for example, has an intriguing “Stepford Wives” quality about it.

For Kashiwagi, the rejection of outward signs of Japaneseness is ironically the thing that is most Japanese about these paintings.

“Kinoshita chose the subjects of figures and still lifes, traditional subjects of Western art,” he says. “But, despite this, his paintings reflect the very Japanese elegance of the Showa Period culture. The styles of the ladies were influenced by the West, but what is most Japanese is the ability to absorb foreign influences.”

Such an ability has been noted throughout Japanese history. The unique thing about how Japan adopts foreign culture is that it does not necessarily involve a loss of Japanese identity, independence, pride, or status. This could be described as a kind of aggressive passivity, something that is also found in the strategies employed by women in male-dominated societies. Just as Japan as a nation, in the earlier Meiji Period (1868-1912), enthusiastically embraced Western technology and civilization, so we feel in these paintings that these ladies of the postwar period are embracing Western styles and fashions for a similar motive — empowerment.

The adoption of Western clothes, accessories, interiors, and even body language in the paintings, combined with the cool, unexpressive faces, suggests a certain degree of passive manipulation and empowerment through the eliciting of desire. This quality is highlighted by the frequent use of red, the most vibrant, passionate, and active color, in conjunction with the gaze of the figures, who seldom look at the viewer.

The avoidance of eye contact is also noticeable in a series of Goyaesque nudes from the ’60s and ’70s, done on large canvases that are grouped in one room to maximize their effect. In these, the sexuality of the figures is more explicitly and aggressively unleashed, but, just as in the other pictures, their averted gaze gives them an element of passivity.

For Japanese, the Showa Period is increasingly becoming a period associated with glamour and nostalgia. This is the main reason this exhibition was brought together. But beyond the glitz and sentimentality, these paintings also provide intriguing insights into Japanese social history. It would be hard to find a painter less avant-garde than Kinoshita, or one less concerned about the outward show of being Japanese. Ultimately, though, this is what makes Kinoshita’s story — and that of the Showa ladies — all the more interesting.

“Takanori Kinoshita” is showing at the Yokohama Museum of Art will June 8; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.(8 p.m. Fri.; closed Thur.); entrance ¥900. For more information call (045) 221-0300 or visit